By Ed Sum (The Vintage Tempest)
*Screened at the 2016 Victoria Film Festival
The idea of having zombies shambling about in a steampunk world as slaves is a great concept to play with in the Japanese animated movie The Empire of Corpses. When technology made advanced leaps thanks to the success of Charles Babbage (the grandfather of computing) building the analytical engine, Victor Frankenstein reanimating a mix of dead body parts (he’s a real figure in this fictional world) and Duncan MacDougall discovering the deceased loses “21 grams” of mass (their soul) upon death, science fiction author Satoshi Itō (伊藤 聡) aka Project Itoh crafted a dystopian Victorian world-embracing death instead of fearing it.
In our historical understanding of this past, the preoccupation with the dead was because mortality rates were high; many loved ones passed before their time or in wars from afar. Séances were common because many people from around the British Commonwealth wanted to communicate with the deceased for many a reason. To talk to them again offered closure. These details might have been addressed on a deeper level in the novel but in the animated film, a fair bit of this age’s spiritualist practices are not as deeply explored. What’s exhumed is surface level.
Enter Dr. John Watson (Yoshimasa Hosoya) seeking to reanimate his recently deceased friend and research partner Friday (Ayumu Murase), Herbert West (The Re-animator) style. He’s continuing in MacDougall’s work, because the question of whether a soul — sentience and self-awareness — truly exists is paramount to Watson’s desire to see his friend again. He’s obsessed with bringing his friend’s essence back. In this anime, one of the characters says “language forms consciousness,” implying a part of an individual’s essence must be able to express ideas through sound or scribble if he or she is truly alive. Unfortunately, Watson’s illegal experiments to bring back Friday’s soul catches the attention of the British government agent M. He threatens upon Watson prison or working as an untrained spy. His agency wants the journals of Victor Frankenstein because this doctors work is known to bring back the soul after physical death.
The difference between Frankenstein’s creation (a golem) and reanimated corpses (zombie) is in the fact a full personality exists in patient zero and he serves no master (contrary to folklore). Had this detail been known, these techno-necromancers (corpse tech, as it’s known) would have a war on their hands. For every zombie with a soul to exercise free will, unions would have formed! Menial jobs like being a waiter, soldier or sailor are delegated (programmed) to this new class of citizen and the people all around the world accept it, especially in Confederate America.
With no surprise, Frankenstein’s monster wants to change that. However, instead of wanting his kin to gain free will, he wants to take it away from everyone! This creation’s agenda gets known late in the game in a classic James Bond style of mad villain delivery. Many decades have passed since this beast’s exile. He’s grown old while watching how humanity has not improved for the better.
With the help from Frederick Burnaby (Taiten Kusunoki) and Hadaly Lilith (Kana Hanazawa), characters taken from history and fiction, Watson manages to track down The One (Frankenstein’s Monster) and with his zombie assistant, Friday, tries to recover the secrets to reanimation proper. This film is not without references to other pieces of well-known literature of the time, but the connections between them are minuscule. Friday is like Friday from Robinson Crusoe and the relationship he had with Watson must have been intimate, otherwise why else would the Doctor seek to restore his friend? The Victorian age was surprisingly tolerant of same-sex relationships, more so for men than women. As a man of science, he’s not interested in spirit communication to talk to his beloved assistant, Watson wants him back from the dead in both mind and body.
The Empire of Corpses is a mildly puzzling film. It’s liberal use of characters from history and literature only makes sense if viewers are very well-versed in the lore speculating in what defines free will. Itoh references The Brothers Karamazov and The Future Eve. Watson is from Sherlock Holmes‘ world. When considering his young age, he has yet to partner up with him and turn detective himself.
The James Bond references are truly out-of-place. This anime does have a character named Moneypenny and Friday is code-named Noble Savage 007. Additionally, names like Paul Bunyan (a figure from American folklore), Thomas Edison (inventor), and Ulysses S. Grant (18th US President) are used without any hint of how they are connected. Now if people like Charles Darwin or David Livingstone were referenced, a few ideas may form. The story started off great, challenging the notions of what slavery entails but that concept gets abandoned in favour for a dazzling video game style ending which barely connects with the overall plot.
All of a sudden, The One talks about wanting to be reunited with his beloved (the Bride), taking away free will from the masses and subjugating the world where one man shall rule them all. Any exploration about whether slavery is good or not and Victorian spirituality is tossed aside.
This movie is essentially a continuation of Mary Shelly‘s seminal work, Frankenstein, set in an alternate universe. Most readers will agree her novel is a work of science fiction and to read (or watch) a sequel crafted by another author a world away begs the question if he understood Shelly’s intent. Within each person born is a blank slate, a tabula rasa, to which events and experiences shape who they are. The soul defines that person’s personality and identity, the reactive substance, which gives character to the individual. Are we automatons as this film suggests? The monster from Shelly’s novel was not wholly evil. He taught himself manners and good grace. He fought back when people feared his appearance. Friday is literally empty, devoid of thought and is a puppet, and while Watson’s obsession with awakening within him a soul, the Wizard of Oz he is not. To restore what has died (or moved on into the Aether), the essence of what defines Friday’s personality, is nigh impossible. This movie based on Itoh’s work sadly travels down a different yellow brick road and the answers given, especially when the last few chapters were penned by Toh Enjoe, a friend of Itoh’s (sadly the author died before finishing this work). His conclusion is far too obtuse to fully understand and to see the animated version adapted from his work on top only muddles Itoh’s own intentions in how the world manages to survive.
Yes, this film is about a different kind of zombie apocalypse. Maybe next time, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn should get involved in giving this world the send off it deserves. This story is deserving of a proper mystic angle than going down the way of science.
3 Stars out of 5